WASHINGTON – Maryland officials do not expect the Justice Department will make good, just yet, on a threat to withhold $900,000 in federal funds if the state does not toughen provisions of its “Megan’s law” requiring registry of sex offenders.
The federal government and all 50 states require sexual offenders to register with authorities under the laws, which are named for 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was raped and murdered by her New Jersey neighbor in 1994.
But several states have come under scrutiny by the federal government, which wants them to close what it sees as loopholes in their laws. That includes Maryland, which does not currently require all second-time offenders to register with the state for the rest of their lives.
The Justice Department this summer ordered those states to tighten their laws or lose 10 percent of an annual federal grant for crime prevention and enforcement. Justice gave the states until October to fix what it saw as the problem.
For Maryland, $900,000 is at stake, said Michael A. Sarbanes, deputy chief of staff for the lieutenant governor. He said Maryland argued in August that it was already in compliance with the law, but the Justice Department rejected that argument in a letter that state officials received Friday.
Because Maryland’s legislature only meets from January to April, however, Sarbanes and others said they do not expect the federal government to withhold the grant money in the interim. If the law is toughened in the upcoming legislative session, the state may not lose any money, he said.
Under Maryland law, a first-time sex offender must register with authorities and notify them if he moves to a new address any time in the next 10 years. If he commits another sex offense, he must register his whereabouts with authorities for the rest of his life.
But Maryland’s law does not require registration by a repeat offender whose first offense occurred in a state without a registry law, or whose first offense occurred before the law was passed, said Leonard Sipes, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
A bill that would have required lifetime registration for any two-time offender passed the House of Delegates last session, but died in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, Sarbanes said. He could not say why the bill died and committee members could not be reached for comment Friday.
The National Criminal Justice Association, an organization of state officials who work on crime policy issues, said many of its members believe the federal government’s requirement puts undue burden on the states.
“Keeping track of the paperwork is a nightmare,” said the association’s Mark O’Hara. “Many states feel like they’re being micro-managed.”
He said states agree that communities need to be protected from sex offenders, many are not sure that Megan’s-law registries are the best solution.
“It’s a tough balancing act,” O’Hara said. “People want to know how safe their neighborhood is. But many states feel they could better use the money to deal with crime instead of administering the program.